Our first two blog posts introduced Bikram yoga, and now we're getting into the nitty-gritty of how the 26 specific postures in the Bikram sequence can improve your running performance.
Practising yoga in the heat brings huge benefits, but the flipside of the 104 degrees farenheit (40 degrees celsius) heat is that Bikram can be undeniably challenging. In running terms, a Bikram class requires preparation akin to that of a race: fail to prepare and prepare to fail and all that. So good old Mr Bikram included a warm up at the start of the class to get us ready for the challenge ahead.
The warm up - the first of the 26 postures - is called Pranayama breathing. Pranayama is a Sanskrit word which means 'extension of the life force'.
'The first posture focuses on balancing your breath,' says Olga Allon, Director and Head Teacher at Hot Bikram Yoga in London. 'Most people usually take very shallow breaths, so taking time out to think and structure your breathing offsets breathlessness.'
Pranayama breathing: step by step
1. To begin the posture, stand with your feet together, toes and heels touching. Contract your quads and stand up tall with your shoulders relaxed.
2. Interlock your fingers and place your knuckles under your chin. Keep your knuckles here in contact with your bottom jaw throughout the entire posture.
3. Start inhaling through your nose, using a count of six to fill your lungs. At the same time, slowly raise your elbows so that your forearms frame your face and your elbows are level with the top of your head.
4. As you exhale (for a count of six), bring your elbows and wrists together in front of you, whilst gently and slowly tipping your head back. Exhale through your mouth making a 'haaaaa' sound, and ensure you fully empty your lungs as you do so.
To begin again, repeat the first step: Inhaling through your nose, levelling your head and raising your elbows so your arms frame your face. Remember to keep your knuckles in contact with your chin through all phases of the posture.
How will Pranayama breathing help your running?
'Inhaling and exhaling to a count of six helps stabilise your breath, one of the most important components of yoga - and running,' explains Olga. 'Pranayama breathing can help improve elasticity of the lungs and improve lung function.
'It also gives you a chance to clear your mind, forget anything clouding your mind, and focus on the task ahead of you - a principle easily transferrable to running. Adding a breathing exercise such as Pranayama to your pre-run routine should help improve your running.'
And it's not just Olga who feels this way: research in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine (2004) found that yogic practices including 30 minutes of Pranayama breathing (two sets of 15 minutes a day) significiantly improved cardio-respiratory performance.
Furthermore, a study in the Journal of Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine (2009) found that Pranayama breathing after exhaustive exercise decreased levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) and increased levels of melatonin, the 'antidote' to cortisol, a neurohormone related to lower levels of stress and better sleeping patterns.
Cortisol is a nasty little bugger. When your body is in a state of stress, be it from an exhausting week at work or after a PB-beating half-marathon, cortisol levels skyrocket, which leaves you vulnerable to nasty little free radicals which attack at cellular level and weaken your immune system. If you've ever had an impossible-to-shift cold virus after a period of intense training, cortisol is probably to blame.
Pranayama breathing can help you improve your running on both a physiological and psychological level, so what's not to like? Before your next run, dedicate two minutes beforehand to this breathing exercise. You might get a few funny looks, but when you're running faster for longer, you'll have the last laugh.
Bikram specialist Olga Allon teaches at London's Hot Bikram Yoga.